Roster expansion in Major League Baseball is right around the corner on September 1st. It’s the time of year where roster depth gets rewarded to players not opting out of their minor league deals in June and where fringe to decent prospects get a cup of coffee. It’s also when veterans on the disabled list suddenly get healthy and clubhouses and benches get a little more crowded. It’s when catchers get pinch run for in the fifth, and managers make pitching changes in the 11th for a better match-up. Managers have plenty of options to call from and freedom to make some decisions they would never make in a regular situation.
The Pirates have had some success in the recent past using the 40-man expansion to their advantage. They gave 3B prospect Neil Walker a surprise call in 2009. He struggled in the majors, but his minor league numbers exploded the next spring. Jared Hughes also made a September debut. John Holdzkom held four games, earned a save, and got many thinking he would be the next in line of Pirates’ bullpen steals only to struggle with control and injuries the next spring. Others, like Chase d’Arnaud, who scored seven runs as a pinch runner in three Septembers with the Buccos provided more quiet contributions.
The Indianapolis Indians have struggled this year in spite of the depth the Pirates have accumulated there. For the first time in six seasons, the Tribe find themselves on the outside looking in on the AAA playoff picture. The Bucs do have the potential to add a few players who could impact the team again this year and they can do it right when the minor league season ends, while in other years they have to wait for their affiliate to be eliminated.
Here’s who could be joining the team shortly:
Chris Stewart – According to Sean McCool of Pirates Prospects, Stewart will resume his role as back up catcher on September 1st.
Plan is for Chris Stewart to rejoin the #Pirates when rosters expand on 9/1, will catch twice more for Altoona.
— Sean McCool (@NotSoMcCool) August 27, 2016
Holding Stewart off allowed the Pirates to retain he and Eric Fryer for the remainder of the season. Fryer cooled after a hot start for Pittsburgh, but he’s a stopgap worthy of a roster spot the rest of the way. He also maintains the status quo if Stewart isn’t fully healthy.
Drew Hutchison – I have no idea what role he’ll play, but you can count on Hutchison to be on the big league roster when they expand. He has struggled with Indy, but I suspect that has more to do with making adjustments to get the most out of him by the end of spring training next year. The tinkering should continue at the major league level this fall and I would guess in mop up duty. If the Pirates fall out of contention, he could take Jameson Taillon’s spot in the rotation to limit Taillon’s innings.
Adam Frazier – Frazier will be back as soon as he can be. He was a surprise to be sent down, but you’ve already drawn the short straw when you’re the only guy on the bench with options.
Kyle Lobstein – Lobstein has hung onto his 40-man roster spot all year and it’s likely he’ll be up. I wouldn’t expect him to pitch much, as he’ll play a similar role to Jeff Locke. However, we could see him in extra innings or extreme mop up situations.
Elias Diaz – Diaz joined the club last September and got a whole two plate appearances. He had another stint on the big league roster this year due to injuries where he actually got to play a little. He’s hitting for average in AAA this year and I would be surprised if he only gets to the plate twice this year.
Max Moroff – With his debut already under his belt, the switch hitting second baseman’s ability to draw walks could make him a valuable asset down the stretch in certain situations.
Alen Hanson – The Pirates will be loaded with middle infielders this year. While Hanson has lost his top prospect status, he’s still quite young and has a chance to redeem himself. Outside of an abysmal May, he’s improved his hitting at AAA. His career path reminds me a touch of Neil Walker’s, in that he showed promise early, moved quickly through the system and was given up for dead. The question about Hanson is will he hit enough to be a regular. Many would say no right now, but many said no of Walker in 2009 when he got his September call as well.
Steven Brault – Brault has struggled a touch down the minor league stretch, but his three pitch mix could play at the major league level down the road. He has no role, but does have innings to put on his tattooed arm. He got a spot start on Monday subbing for Gerrit Cole, so there may be a “paper move” in his future.
Jason Rogers – Rogers is still on the 40-man, so he’s got that going for him. He’s also another right handed bat off the bench which the Pirates could use. However, he’s shown very little at the dish this year. He’ll likely be up, but I’m not sure what he brings to the party.
Gift Ngoepe – His call up would be more about the story than the substance. He’s having one of his roughest seasons offensively, but he could serve nicely in the d’Arnaud role mentioned above. This might be his only chance.
Tyler Glasnow – Glasnow’s rehab assignment is over, but he was optioned to AAA Sunday. The Bucs could save his September service time and couple it with an early 2017 season trip to the minors to get an extra year of control. With the improved rotation, I’m not sure how much Glasnow really improves the team and his limited service time suggests there is much for him to work out to reach his ceiling. Might as well do it in the minors.
Curtis Partch – Partch is sporting a 40+ ERA in less than an inning of work in the majors this year. He’s a heavy thrower, but at 29 he’s becoming a little long in the tooth to shed his AAAA status. The question for me is do the Pirates call him up or do they give an actual prospect their first taste of the majors next month?
Willy Garcia – Garcia’s still on the 40-man roster, but he hasn’t done much all year. The five tool upside we’ve dreamed on hasn’t materialized. His power disappeared this year and he strikes out too much to think his hit tool will play. He’s still young and the Pirates will likely still control him even if he’s removed from the 40-man this offseason.
Jose Osuna – Osuna seems like a player going in the opposite direction of Garcia this year. Always on the fringe of that cohort of Latin American players who composed the core of the 2012 West Virginia Power along with Gregory Polanco, Hanson and Garcia, Osuna is looking like the second best pure hitter of that group now. He’ll give professional at-bats and his success in AAA as a 23 year old may mean he’s likely gone this offseason if he’s not added to the 40-man.
Dovydas Neverauskas – After struggling for some time in the organization, Neverauskas seemed to finally put it together in the second half of 2015. He jumped three levels in a shade under thirteen months and earned a trip to the Futures Game this year. Asking him to jump a fourth and be productive would be a lot, but the Pirates are in danger of losing him if he doesn’t get added to the offseason 40-man anyway.
Trevor Williams – Williams’ name comes up often in September call up conversations. He’s had an excellent year, but he’s not on the 40-man and lacks a clear role. Don’t know where you put him.
Nick Kingham – In a perfect world, Kingham would already be getting himself established in the Pirates’ rotation. In the real world, he’s working his way back from Tommy John. He’s gone on a slow rehab tour through the system that hasn’t reached Indianapolis. It’s very unlikely it will reach Pittsburgh.
Edgar Santana – If you thought Neverauskas’ rise through the organization was meteoric, meet Santana. He started the year in Bradenton and has actually outpitched the more experienced Lithuanian whom he’s competing with. With a 20:2 K:BB in 22 AAA innings, Santana looks more ready on paper, but having signed late for a Dominican prospect, the Pirates have no need to hurry him onto the 40-man. He’ll be called up when they’re ready to permanently add him to the roster.
Justin Masterson – The Pirates didn’t really do a great job reclaiming Masterson as evidenced by his International League struggles, but he is Justin Masterson and another veteran presence for the locker room.
Frank Duncan – From organizational depth to a dazzling AAA shut out streak, Duncan has gone from the edge of the prospect radar to the verge of the show. Duncan has fringy sinker velocity but excellent control and a higher-than-should-be-expected strikeout rate. While he likely won’t be on the Pirates roster this fall, his minor league career path and numbers looks similar to fellow soft tosser Kyle Hendricks. Not suggesting that’s what he’ll become, but I’m not sleeping on him.
Pirates have tons of options on who could make the jump this fall. In the end, I think they’ll settle in with about 35- 36 men on the active roster, with one player not currently on the 40-man being added.